Jewish World Review Sept. 7, 2004 / 21 Elul, 5764
Right city, right message
NEW YORK There are many stages to a presidential campaign. But it's clear that the Republicans made much better use of their convention attention than did the Democrats.
Going into last week, the overwhelming media consensus was that Republicans had made a mistake holding their convention in New York.
It was hostile territory (the city is lopsidedly Democratic). It was an easy place to recruit and deploy protesters to steal media attention. And using New York for its 9/11 symbology in a partisan campaign was inappropriate and likely to backfire.
As it turned out, New York was a poignant backdrop for the central, indeed almost exclusive, message of this convention: George W. Bush will be resolute in protecting the country against terrorist attacks; John Kerry might not be.
Hard to argue that the use of 9/11 symbology is inappropriate when the ones doing it are the governor of New York and its mayor at the time of the attack. Rudy Giuliani, who remains in the memory walking the clouded streets seemingly without rest in the attack's aftermath, settled the question of the propriety of invoking 9/11 images and emotions during this campaign in his speech the very first night.
And the protesters simply served as an illustration of how unhinged is some of the opposition to Bush.
Going into their convention in Boston last month, Democrats seemed to believe that they could turn the election into a referendum on Bush's first term, and win if they could neutralize Bush's advantage on national security and terrorism.
That wasn't a bad bet then; it may still be a good one.
At the time, Bush's approval ratings were below 50 percent; in most polls they are now slightly above that.
But on the fundamental question of whether the country is on the right or wrong track, a fairly strong majority believes that the country is headed in the wrong direction.
Changing the guy who's leading the way is an obvious remedy.
So, the Democrats spent their convention hammering the Bush record.
Kerry apparently believes that his service in Vietnam is a trump card against any criticism of his record on national security and terrorism issues. He has a consistent pattern in his political career of transfiguring any criticism on national security issues into a questioning of his patriotism, and then citing his service in Vietnam as the answer.
So, in Boston, the nation heard endlessly about John Kerry the soldier. And Kerry started his acceptance speech by saluting smartly and saying he was reporting for duty.
But you cannot have John Kerry the soldier without John Kerry the war protester.
Kerry, to his credit, does not shy away from this. He believes he acted with integrity in both capacities.
But, while most Americans may believe that the Vietnam war was a mistake, they don't believe that it was dishonorable. And that's what Kerry the war protester said it was.
They also don't believe that the United States was fundamentally rotten and immoral, which was what the anti-war movement with which Kerry associated was saying at the time.
So, the Democratic Convention was devoted to Kerry the soldier and Bush the bad record. Very little about what Kerry the president might do.
That's not because Kerry hasn't offered an agenda. In fact, he has stated with far greater specificity and detail what he wants to do over the next four years than Bush has. Indeed, Kerry's problem is that his agenda is too expansive and detailed to be financed.
Even in Iraq, Kerry has something contemporary that he could be stressing. Kerry called for turning sovereignty over to an interim government before elections and the country's political development over to the United Nations, when the Bush administration was rejecting both ideas.
Kerry could fairly say that the Bush administration has already conceded that he has better ideas about Iraqi reconstruction - it has adopted them.
But it appears that Kerry cannot break his political habit. The criticism of his record at the Republican Convention was obviously taking a toll, and Kerry broke from tradition Thursday by striking back.
What did he say?
Sure enough, that his patriotism was being attacked. And he wasn't going to stand by and have his patriotism questioned by people who didn't serve in Vietnam when he did.
Doubling down on a losing bet isn't a good idea.
JWR contributor Robert Robb is a columnist for The Arizona Republic. Comment by clicking here.
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